After leaving prison, returning citizens find new ground on this Michigan farm

YPSILANTI TOWNSHIP, MICHIGAN — Melvin Parson did not know anything about growing vegetables when he inherited a raised vegetable bed at a community garden after a friend passed away.

“I didn’t ask for the vegetable bed, it just landed in my lap,” said Parson, also known as Farmer Melvin. “But what was intentional was that I paid close attention to the soil. For some reason, I instinctively added good compost and worm compost tea and just tried to really be kind to the soil. And as a result, it produced some really good produce. And it dawned on me that the same thing applies to human beings, right? It’s all about our soil.”

As Parson learned more about gardening and farming, he began to think about creating a sustainable farming system that could support a workforce of formerly incarcerated men and women. He had faced many challenges reentering society after being incarcerated for 13 years, and he understood the power of second chances. He wanted to break the cycle of incarceration in Washtenaw County.

From left to right, Robert
From left to right, Robert “Mikey” Asperante, Stephanale Adams, Heidi Hoffman and Eric Kampe pose at We the People Opportunity Farm in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. The program hires formerly incarcerated people for paid internships each year, offering support not only on employment but on other reentry challenges. July 25, 2023. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm

He founded We the People Opportunity Farm (WTPOF) in 2015. Tucked behind Grace Fellowship Church House of Solutions in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, a sign that reads “Kindness & Dignity live here” welcomes all to a three-quarter acre field of organic collard greens, chard, kale, garlic scapes, beets, turnips, potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and strawberries. A pollinators’ garden of herbs and flowers buzzes with bees and butterflies.

The farm, about 40 miles outside of Detroit, features a nine-month paid internship program to support men and women returning home from incarceration. Some of the interns are referred by the farm’s community partners, like the Michigan Department of Corrections (MDOC), the Washtenaw County Sheriff’s office, or other nonprofit organizations working with returning citizens. Other times, because the program is well known in the community, Parson said, “Someone may reach out to us and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got a uncle or I’ve got an auntie or I’ve got a son or I’ve got a daughter who might benefit from your program.'”

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After an online application, interns are selected through an interview process.

“We don’t ask what’s on their record because a lot of times that’s the barrier that keeps them from obtaining employment,” Parson said. “We want to, at all turns, let them know, from the onset, that what they were or what they have gone to jail or prison for is not of concern to us. That’s not a barrier. It’s not even something [of concern]. Our focus is on developing and growing people. Not what their past was.”

A volunteer picks one of the first strawberries of the season at We the People Opportunity Farm,  a nonprofit organization in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, that supports citizens as they return home from prison. One of the goals is to help reduce recidivism in Washtenaw County. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang for the PBS NewsHour
A volunteer picks one of the first strawberries of the season at We the People Opportunity Farm, a nonprofit organization in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan, that supports citizens as they return home from prison. One of the goals is to help reduce recidivism in Washtenaw County. June 15, 2023. Photo by Frances Kai-Hwa Wang for the PBS NewsHour

In 2020, the program got its first two paid interns, and it has increased the number of paid interns every year. This year it has six paid interns. Designed to change the figurative soil in people’s lives, the program includes farming activities such as preparing the field, planting the seeds, nurturing the soil, and harvesting crops.

Proceeds from sales of produce to local stores and restaurants help fund the program. Interns also help deliver produce to local stores and restaurants and help distribute it to neighbors. At the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the farm — which is located in a community that already struggles with food insecurity — began to also donate produce to neighbors in partnership with a food pantry at the church where the farm is located. The farm has given away over 15,000 pounds of food to more than 600 neighbors.

The ultimate goal is to connect these returning citizens with employment, but not every person is ready for that yet. The farm gives them the space to work “knowing that if they mess up, they can get some help, get some feedback. We’re not a typical employer where we’re going to have a harsh, punitive outlook,” Heidi Bechtel, the farm’s program coordinator, told the PBS NewsHour.

In a decadelong study of prisoners released across 24 states in 2008, the U.S. Department of Justice found that about 66 percent of prisoners released were arrested within three years, and 82 percent were arrested within 10 years.

In Michigan, there has been a push to lower the state’s recidivism rate, or the percentage of individuals who return to prison within three years of release, Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington told the NewsHour.

Fifteen years ago, 45 percent of individuals leaving prison in Michigan would return within three years, Washington said. That number has now been halved, to around 22 percent, according to the latest available data. It is the lowest rate in state history and the fourth lowest rate in the nation, according to the department. Washtenaw County has seen improvement in these rates as well.

WATCH: ‘Searching for Justice: Life After Lockup,’ a PBS NewsHour special report

Washington attributes this in part to the state department of corrections better preparing returning citizens with education and vocational training, help fighting addiction, and providing vital documents before release. They’ve also focused on improvements to post-incarceration supervision and the parole violation process.

There has been “a renewed focus on putting people under its jurisdiction on a path to success,” MDOC Director Washington. “That means using evidence-based programs to address risk, increasing the availability of educational opportunities throughout our department, and focusing on outcomes beyond just recidivism, such as employment, improved physical/behavioral health, and self-sufficiency. That means using strategies like motivational interviewing to support intrinsic changes in thinking, recovery coaches to help those with substance use disorders, and focusing on ‘coaching,’ rather than just ‘refereeing.'”

Challenges for returning citizens vary. A 2023 study by the Citizens Research Council of Michigan found that young men of color have the highest risk of rearrest and reincarceration. Men are more likely to be rearrested and reincarcerated than women, Black and brown people are more likely to be rearrested and reincarcerated than white people, as are people who were first arrested under the age of 40. Socioeconomic factors also affect the likelihood of rearrest and reincarceration, so stable employment and vocational training are key to decreasing recidivism.

Washington said as employment outcomes have improved, new challenges have emerged, such as affordable housing and accessible transportation.

“Leaving prison is only one step on a person’s journey,” Washington said.

That’s why We The People Opportunity Farm does not take a one-size-fits-all approach, Bechtel said.

Organic onions, peppers, beans, chard, collards grow alongside an herb and pollinator garden at We the People Opportunity Farm, in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. The nonprofit farm supports returning citizens and works to reduce recidivism one seed at a time. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm
Organic onions, peppers, beans, chard, collards grow alongside an herb and pollinator garden at We the People Opportunity Farm, in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. The nonprofit farm supports returning citizens and works to reduce recidivism one seed at a time. July 16, 2023. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm

“It gives them this time where it’s a soft landing,” Bechtel said. “They get kind of triaged. They get the support they need. It can help stabilize, and we can help support them meeting certain goals.”

The internship includes other educational support such as classes in financial literacy through Liberty Financial Services, workshops on career building through Michigan Works!, and hands-on home rehabilitation experience through Habitat for Humanity of Huron Valley. The internship can also lead to a 16-week paid apprenticeship opportunity in manufacturing at local Trenton Corporation.

The centerpiece is a course called “The Art of Reentry” developed by Parson and Adam Grant, the director of A Brighter Way, another nonprofit organization helping returning citizens. It is a soft skills field training course primarily geared towards socio-emotional learning and exploration. It features discussion around topics like community building, trust, safety, and self advocacy, but from the perspective of people who have returned home from incarceration. “That’s better than getting it from a professor at the University of Michigan, but [from] someone they can truly relate to, identify with, and trust,” Parson said.

Organic kale, collards, and chard from We the People Opportunity Farm are sold at Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and other area markets and restaurants, part of a program that hires returning citizens. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm
Organic kale, collards, and chard from We the People Opportunity Farm are sold at Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and other area markets and restaurants, part of a program that hires returning citizens. August 20, 2023. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm

When Parson returned home after being incarcerated, he thought that since he had paid his debt to society, society owed him. He did not realize that people would see him differently because he was formerly incarcerated or that he would face barriers to employment and housing. He realized that the onus was on him to not give up, but to “be persistent, patient, lean on my support system to be able to talk about this and to be able to navigate this in a way where I didn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater,” Parson said.

“Sometimes folks are incarcerated and they get this ideological impression that once they get home, things are just going to work out fine. And a lot of times that’s not the case. It takes patience and it takes perseverance and it takes building a community of folks around you to support you and help you navigate some of these systemic challenges or the systemic traps that are set up,” Parson said. “Pride can also be a detriment. We talk about it in our program, the beauty of humility and how humility can work for you. And not humiliation.”

The internship also offers individualized support as needed such as help getting a driver’s license and housing, as well as field trips and community engagement opportunities to make sure that interns are connected to the community. It also connects interns to other more specialized programs in the community which might be able to help them with substance abuse or mental health needs.

Some interns have received help getting their GEDs or driver’s license, including taking a road test.

WATCH: Searching for Justice – Making reentry work after incarceration

Transportation is one of the biggest barriers to reentry, Parson said. If an intern’s driver’s license was suspended or if they never had a driver’s license, “Then we as an organization come alongside them and help them to obtain their driver’s license. Whether that’s paying off tickets that’s impeding them from getting their driver’s license or going to driver’s ed school.” The farm is using a grant from the Michigan Justice Fund rapid relief fund to give this year’s interns electric bicycles at the end of the program.

Last year, an intern who had been incarcerated for more than 30 years had never before used a cell phone and needed help learning basic technology, Bechtel said. Another intern once told her that this was the longest he had ever been sober and the only time in his life that he had ever had a positive support system.

“They just need basic support. There’s a lot of things people lose during the time they’re in prison or if they were homeless for a short time,” Bechtel said.

Organic chard, collards, and kale grow alongside an herb and pollinator garden at We the People Opportunity Farm, in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. The nonprofit farm supports returning citizens and works to reduce recidivism one seed at a time. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm
Organic chard, collards, and kale grow alongside an herb and pollinator garden at We the People Opportunity Farm, in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. The nonprofit farm supports returning citizens and works to reduce recidivism one seed at a time. July 16, 2023. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm

Parson compares people to plants: Both need certain things in their soil to be healthy, like safety, feeling valued, feeling heard, having opportunities.

“What I’ve found [is] a lot of folks, who have been incarcerated or not, once they have those basic human elements or soil amendments in there, chances are they can thrive and lead a healthy life. Because most people are not bad people, their soil is just deficient in some areas.” Parson said.

“We lead with treating folks with value, giving folks the space to be heard, giving folks a feeling that they matter,” Parson said, whether they’re interns or the people who receive produce.

A different measure of success

Farm Manager Eric Kampe is used to working on a production farm where success is determined by how fast one can move and how long one can work. At We the People Opportunity Farm, things are done differently. Interns get the job done, but this farm has different metrics.

“Since the mission is providing a safe place for our interns to better themselves and put their lives back together,” Kampe told the PBS NewsHour. “The interns are the point, not the harvest. And the harvest is the treat.”

Working on the farm gives the interns an opportunity to be outdoors, to gain some steady income, and implement a daily structure of regular work, education, and support as they find stability after incarceration.

“We’re trying to meet them where they are, wherever that is,” Kampe said. “There’s a guideline or a standard that we ask. We ask for kindness and dignity. But other than that, I’ll meet them where they’re at.”

The farm makes clear this is not a job skills program. It is not trying to teach the interns how to become farmers, nor are interns chosen because they have any experience in farming. The farm is just the vehicle, Kampe said.

“I’m not trying to make them be something they’re not. I’m not trying to judge them for their past or even try and make them into farmers.” Kampe said. “They’re accidentally going to learn skills. There’s no way around it. But I’m not trying to. I find those metrics get in the way of the really important work, which is just being kind. And I feel like that’s not often part of the conversation.”

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The measure of success will be different for each intern. Some former interns now work full time jobs, from restaurants to prisoner advocacy work. Some entered skilled trades programs. Others reconnected with their families. Some got a driver’s license or an apartment. Some have simply gotten their legs back underneath them.

“[The thing] I’m most proud about is that we’ve created soil where they trust us enough to come alongside them,” Parson said. “Because that’s the thing, right? Developing and building that trust to create an atmosphere like that, is one of the things that really makes my heart smile.”

Facing the challenges of return

Parson knows the challenges his interns face reentering society. He was incarcerated for 13 years, homeless three times, and struggled with alcohol and substance use for two decades. But with the help and support of many people and programs, he returned to school to get a master’s degree in social work at nearby Eastern Michigan University.

“I’ve had case managers, I’ve had a Bridge Card (EBT), I’ve lived in public housing, I’ve lived in subsidized housing, I’ve gone to shelters, I’ve lived in cardboard boxes. I’ve experienced all of that,” Parson said. “I’m keenly aware that I’m standing on the shoulders of a whole lot of folks. I’m keenly aware of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men that had to help put me back together again. So it’s a ‘we,’ right? This resonates so deeply within my spirit, that collectiveness and the power of we.”

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Victoria Burton-Harris, the president of the farm’s board of directors, is also the assistant prosecutor of Washtenaw County. She teaches a course at University of Michigan Law School about the progressive prosecutors movement, which is centered on fighting overincarceration, eliminating racial and socioeconomic inequities, and changing a criminal legal system that too frequently exacerbates them.

“The progressive views I hold on prosecution are largely informed by my own values — centering human dignity and compassion for all in a system that has thrived on not valuing all humans. This is the exact same motto of We The People Opportunity Farm,” Burton-Harris said.

“If we want our men and women to stop cycling in and out of prison, we must first embrace the collective need to invest in them and offer support,” Burton-Harris said.

We the People Opportunity Farm intern Donte Smith, left, delivers fresh organic kale August 3, 2023, to Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sale of organic vegetables helps the nonprofit support formerly incarcerated citizens as they return home from prison. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm
We the People Opportunity Farm intern Donte Smith, left, delivers fresh organic kale August 3, 2023, to Argus Farm Stop in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sale of organic vegetables helps the nonprofit support formerly incarcerated citizens as they return home from prison. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm

Donte Smith, a current intern, did not know anything about planting or harvesting before he began this internship, but he is back for a second year to help give the program stability as it expanded from four to six interns. He can also see that some of the skills he has learned here can be put to good use, such as helping to weed his roommate’s father’s yard to make a little extra money.

But it is not just farming skills that he has learned. “We learn how to budget our money, about credit, stuff like the credit reports, mostly how to manage our money [and how] to build credit.” Smith said.

“I think the program is real helpful for us coming back to the community from incarceration,” Smith said. “I think the program is a good program to help them get on their feet. And help give them support in the community and help give them a chance to give back to the community.”

Intern Destiny Moore also did not know anything about farming or even gardening before beginning this internship, but she likes the supportive environment and the idea that they are growing things that other people actually want to buy and eat. She calls the things she has been learning “a lifetime kind of skill that you could take with you,” and she plans to do just that.

“I plan on getting some collard greens. And try to, for my first time, try to make them myself. You know, look up a recipe, see how they come out,” Moore said. “I’m definitely going to take these skills that I’m learning here on the farm with me. That is guaranteed. I’m trying to memorize this, so visually, whenever I can get my own home, my own house — because I’m in an apartment — I want to be able to make my own garden. I don’t know when, but it’s gonna happen.”

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Intern Heidi Hoffman calls the farm her happy place. “It grounds me. It helps me stay focused and enjoy the small things,” she said. That includes the Art of Reentry classes, and the people she has met through the program.

She credits how Parson “works on making you feel like your life is worth something.”

“Everyone deserves a second chance. Everyone deserves dignity and respect,” Hoffman said. “That’s what the whole program is around — treating people with dignity and respect. No matter what walk of life you have, we all deserve to be in respect for one another. And that’s what this whole program is wrapped around.”

Looking forward

Bechtel said that one of the reasons the program works is that it gives its interns a good wage in addition to structure, support, and connections.

Bechtel said that there are other great programs that help people with things like housing or mentorship, but what sets this program apart is that the interns are paid for the time it takes to go on field trips and attend educational opportunities such as financial literacy and job skills classes — so that they do not have to struggle to find the time outside of regular work hours to get things done. “Typically, they’d have to work that into their normal while they’re trying to work a full time job,” Bechtel said. “It’s just so much when you’re in survival mode. There’s just so much you have to worry about. And we take that load off of them a little bit.”

Members of the 2023 team at We the People Opportunity Farm pose in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. From left to right: Korey Deiter, Heidi Hoffman, Melvin Parson, Donte Smith, Eric Kampe, Destiny Moore, Stephanale Adams. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm
Members of the 2023 team at We the People Opportunity Farm pose in Ypsilanti Township, Michigan. From left to right: Korey Deiter, Heidi Hoffman, Melvin Parson, Donte Smith, Eric Kampe, Destiny Moore, Stephanale Adams. August 21, 2023. Photo courtesy of We the People Opportunity Farm

Intern Robert “Mikey” Asperanti said that he knows that many people shy away from him because of the way he looks and because of his criminal history, but he is most impressed with the way that Parson and Kampe introduce him and the other interns to everybody.

“They treat us with total respect, even though we’re ex-convicts, most of us out here. Nobody in my life has ever treated me this good,” Asperanti told the PBS NewsHour. “They’re not embarrassed about who we are when they take us out in public and introduce us to big name people, big lawyers. And the new sheriff and the prosecuting attorney.”

WATCH: Race, Redemption and Reentry – A PBS NewsHour Special

In coming years, Parson wants to acquire more land to farm so that he can expand the program, increase the number of interns that they accept, increase the amount of food that they give back to the community, and increase their advocacy centering around formerly incarcerated people and some of the challenges that they face coming home.

“Our goal is to build an ecosystem of support, to be there for them long after their internship is done with us, if they allow us to,” Parson said.

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